Amid gambling violations, NFL players debate betting policy

ByStephen Holder ESPN logo
Thursday, August 24, 2023

Ten NFL players have been suspended for gambling violations since April, and the infractions have revealed a foundational problem: Many players say they aren't familiar with the league policy, especially the part that prohibits betting from team and league facilities or while on the road with their teams. And some want that policy to change.

ESPN interviewed 53 players, a full NFL roster's worth, to find out the prevalence of sports betting, whether players fully understand the NFL gambling policy and what aspects they would change. The players were provided anonymity to let them speak candidly, although some chose to speak on the record.

"You're telling me that if I walk 10 feet from the [facility's] door it doesn't matter anymore?" one player said. "I just think that's kind of dumb. It's pointless. I don't see how that's helping anything."

Another player added: "Why can't players bet on other sports that don't compromise the integrity of the game?"

NFL players are permitted to bet on sports other than the NFL when they're not at team or league facilities or on the road with their team, but several have been hit with six-game suspensions for betting from the wrong location or at the wrong time. When traveling with their teams, they're prohibited from betting from the time they leave their home until they return.

"I would like to see that changed," one player said. "[The suspended players] may have just not understood the rule. That is unfortunate."

The recent violations prompted the league to reexamine how it educates players and personnel on its gambling policy. Based on a new directive for this season, rookies are now obligated to watch an additional training video from NFL compliance that opens with a message about the "importance of game integrity." NFL compliance officials have been traveling to team facilities this summer, giving presentations on the gambling policy to players and personnel.

"It comes back to, in large part, a couple of rules that have existed as long as anybody can remember," said Jeff Miller, NFL executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy. "Don't bet on the NFL. That's not new because sports gambling is more available. That's always been the case.

"And don't bet when you're at work, wherever work happens to be in that moment. That's existed for a long time."

It may have existed for a long time, but since the Supreme Court struck down a federal statute in 2018 that restricted sports betting mostly to Nevada, the landscape has been shifting rapidly across leagues. The NFL has found a revenue stream with three official sportsbook partners in Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel. And some players are struggling to keep up.

"The crazy thing is it's so prevalent in our game," one player said. "There always has to be refresher courses."

Players' thoughts, concerns and complaints about how the gambling policy fits in are below.

How prevalent is sports gambling among NFL players?

Of the 10 players suspended this year, seven were banned indefinitely for at least a year for betting on the NFL. But that's less than 1% of the 1,696 players on NFL rosters.

"In my opinion, it's a very, very, very small, negligible thing," Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said of players betting. "Just like you've seen over the course of NFL history, the one player that gets the DUI, or the one player that gets in a domestic dispute, whatever those issues are, it almost puts a cookie-cutter blanket over a lot of players.

"I haven't seen any of that in my six years in the NFL. And so it's a shame that those individuals chose to do that."

One player acknowledged that the convenience of modern betting can present a challenge.

"Now that the app is more prevalent, it's just easier to be able to pick up the phone and say, 'I'm gonna place this bet here,'" he said.

Still, many of the players interviewed said sports betting doesn't come up in the locker room.

"I know me and the teammates I hang out with don't [bet]," one player said. "I'm sure guys do it, especially with [the] NBA. But it's not something you hear about from guys in the locker room, like someone saying, 'I'm putting a hundred on the Lakers or Celtics tonight.'"

But the definition of gambling is also creating confusion.

"I'm guessing every single player is in some kind of NCAA tournament pool," a player said. "One of my closest friends on the team is big into that. He does brackets, he does a survivor pool. He told me he does it under a fake name. I know some guys do a Masters pool, too. Is that considered gambling?"

Another said: "Bama is playing LSU, your two colleges are playing, we'll bet wearing a hoodie or a couple hundred. But I never heard anyone say 'I'm betting on [Floyd] Mayweather.' The only thing I've seen are colleges and card games, dice games."

Survey results: Twenty-one players said betting on other sports is either prevalent or some teammates bet on other sports; 17 said they weren't sure; 10 said it's either not prevalent or no teammates bet on other sports, and five didn't directly answer the question.

How well do NFL players understand the league policy?

One NFL team recently made a PowerPoint presentation to its players to enhance education around the gambling policy.

"I have no problem saying that I didn't understand it a year ago," one player said. "Who that reflects, I don't know, but I was under the assumption that we could gamble on anything except the NFL anytime, anyplace. ... I found out this year that's obviously not the case.

"Fortunately, I'm not a betting man."

One aspect of the policy that was not met with any resistance among players interviewed is the prohibition against placing bets on NFL games.

"That seems pretty clear-cut," the Vikings' Phillips said. "That's why insider trading is illegal in the financial market."

But there's complexity in the rules beyond that, and it is creating issues.

Placing a bet on a Major League Baseball game is legal under NFL rules, but not if a player places that bet while at the team hotel during a road trip.

"Everybody understood not betting on NFL games," a player said. "But I think a lot of us, even including myself, was not aware of not being able to bet on other sports, especially when it came on league time -- in team hotels, on the bus. You would think it was just in the facility. I don't think a lot of guys truly understood what it meant by 'when you [are] on the league's time.'"

The lack of clarity about where bets may be placed was a recurring theme. This, however, is a critical aspect of the policy.

Misunderstanding can have serious consequences.

Detroit Lions receiver Jameson Williams was suspended for six games earlier this year for placing bets from a team facility. The 2022 first-round draft choice told reporters he was unaware of that part of the policy.

Mobile gambling, as Washington Commanders safety Jeremy Reaves said, "is something you can nonchalantly do. And there are records of everything, and they track all that stuff, and it can come back on you."

"So, if I walk across the street and place a bet, is that legal?" one player asked. "If I walk out of the building, is that legal? I think there needs to be some more specifics on it."

It can be argued that those specifics have been provided.

"Look, I think there's something [posted] on the wall over there about gambling," said one player, speaking from his team's locker room, "but I can't tell you that I've read it word for word."

That sentiment is consistent: That at least some of the confusion stems from players not doing due diligence. Other players rejected the idea that they lack enough information to make informed choices.

"They literally are in the facility during camp giving us all the guidelines," said one player, referring to team and union officials who reinforce the rules in meetings with players.

Another player said, "It becomes an onus on you. You can't just fault the NFL. They're telling you the rules ahead of [time]. So, it's disappointing."

Survey results: Twenty-six of the players interviewed believe players understand the league policy. Twenty-five said they do not, and two said players should know if they don't.

What would NFL players change about the policy?

If the gambling policy were to be amended, it would happen only after the NFL and its players' union agreed on those changes, according to a union source. But for the sake of argument, we asked players what they would change about the rules and the way they are currently applied.

Nearly 50% of the players interviewed took aim at the policy that dictates where and when players can make permissible bets.

"If a guy's in the facility betting on the NBA Finals," Commanders punter Tress Way said, "I have a tough time seeing how that's a big deal. But it's not my call. Maybe in time we'll see ways to clarify."

Said another: "Honestly, if guys aren't betting on NFL games, I don't think guys should be suspended at all -- especially since [legal gambling] is something that's being pushed. It's being promoted. It's being publicized and advertised. I don't care if it's during league hours or in the building."

League officials emphasized that the policy exists to ensure the integrity of NFL games and that there could be an optics issue with players betting on sports from the locker room.

"I think it's about intention," one player said. "If a guy is giving inside information or betting on his team, yeah, I think those guys should be punished. But if a guy isn't doing those kinds of things, maybe give him a hint before you take games away from him."

Continuing with the theme of intent, one player added, "In between meetings, if I'm just trying to get away from the hectic schedule I had, or whatever it is, and you find solace in gambling, I guess to each their own. I'm over here reading manga [comics] at times. So, everybody has their vice."

A middle ground, said one player, would be to revisit the severity of the discipline for some of the more minor violations.

"I do think some of the penalties are a little bit too harsh," one player said. "But, again, it's the shield. The shield is looked at in a different way."

Survey results: Twenty-two players said betting from a team facility shouldn't be a violation, as long as the bet isn't on NFL games. Twelve said the current policy is fine, two players said penalties were too harsh and 17 either didn't answer the question directly or elected not to answer.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters contributed to this report.

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